July 3rd, 2007


Review: The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate

Strange Horizons passed on my review. They've already got one commissioned. So as promised I'm posting my review here. Enjoy.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
by Ted Chiang
Subterranean Press
64 Pages
ISB-13: 978-1-59606-100-2

Ted Chiang does not write short fiction.

Now, set aside your genuine confusion. Yes, Ted Chiang does specialize in the short forms. He is one of the most honored writer's in recent years, garnering major awards for his body of work--three Nebulas, one Hugo, one Sturgeon, two Locus, one Sidewise, the Asimov's Reader Poll, the Campbell for best new writer, and three Hayakawas--and The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, his latest work, scheduled for publication by Subterranean Press in July 2007, is classic Ted Chiang. Available in both trade and limited editions, it is without doubt worth every penny of its price, as Subterranean Press puts out a stellar product.

Still, it's a fact that Ted Chiang does not write short fiction. He develops concepts. Each work presents layers of meaning; words link one to the other until the gestalt overwhelms the reader. They are as changed as Saul of Tarsus, blinded by light on the road to Damascus, because the experience is similar to conversion. You come away from a Chiang story enlightened, whether about the nature of God and humanity or the extremes of emotion.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate approaches its subject with the same singular intent. A penniless man, Fuwaad ibn Abbas, comes before the Caliph, the ruler of Baghdad and the most powerful man in the world at that time. The story Fuwaad tells begins with a walk through the bazaar, but quickly turns bizarre with news of buried treasure and thieves, journeys made in the pursuit of lust and love.

Anyone familiar with Arabian Nights: The Book of One Thousand and One Nights can appreciate the interwoven stories Chiang presents here. That collection, compiled over thousands of years by various authors, translators, and scholars, tells the story of a ruler and his bride. The ruler, Shahriyar, discovers his wife has been with another man. He executes her, and declares all women unfaithful. He then marries a succession of virgins, only to execute each come morning. Scheherazade agrees to marry Shahriyar, but on the night of their marriage tells him an intriguing and entertaining story without telling him how it ends. Shahriyar is forced to keep her alive in order to hear the conclusion the next night. As soon as Scheherazade finishes one story, she begins another--without ending it.

Fuwaad's tale is only the first of four, serving as the framework through which the other stories here are related to the Caliph. After the title piece we're offered "The Tale of the Fortunate Rope-maker," "The Tale of the Weaver Who Stole from Himself," and finally "The Tale of the Wife and Her Lover." Just as with Scheherazade's own story, the reader doesn't know how Fuwaad's tale will end or even the reason for his appearance before the Caliph. You turn pages in anticipation that you might discover Sinbad rounding the corner, just returned from one of his fantastical voyages, or Ali Baba confounding the forty thieves. Except rather than rocs or genies or mystical transformations, Chiang offers a story rooted in the ideas of time travel, fate, and obligations of the human spirit.

Scheherazade herself might spin these tales for the entertainment of her husband; the characters within her stories often related other tales within their own, adding layer upon layer to illustrate the length, breadth, and fluidity of reality. Different compilations throughout the years included some tales and left out others. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate could easily be a night lost to the ages.

Chiang's tale employs the same subtlety you can find within "Tower of Babylon," his Nebula Award-winning tale that also depicts the ancient world in straightforward terms while exposing the characters (and the reader) to science-fictional principles in such a way that they accept the otherworldly as normal, comprehensible. It's as if Chiang has the ability to fit a square peg into a round hole without losing anything. Then, once that square peg slots into place, the round hole changes, because, of course, a square peg can't fit into a round hole. Call it a paradigm shift. Those occur with regularity throughout Chiang's writing, for characters as well as readers.

Some readers might find the straightforward prose too slight, especially in such a short piece offered for such prices ($45 for the limited edition and $20 for the trade edition), and that's a valid concern for book buyers who aren't already fans of Chiang's work. This isn't a dense tale, viewed at the surface. It's not Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, where it's possible to use that seminal piece of literature as a doorstop when you're not reading it. Underneath the simplistic, first layer is where readers should find the real heart of the tale Chiang's offered. Because the best parables and fables-- whether they're handed down and softened, as it's possible to see in changes to European fairy tales such as "Hansel and Gretel," "Little Red Riding Hood" or "Rapunzel," where the grittier tone and adult aspects are sanitized or removed--are the ones where the thrill and horror and lessons survive their outer trappings. A penniless man like Fuwaad ibn Abbas offers more than meets the eye, just as a wolf dressed in a grandmother's nightgown is more than it seems. Like its brother tales from the Arabian Nights, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate remains raw and original, but still just as accessible because of its simplicity.

But the story also recalls the voice Chiang used for "Hell Is the Absence of God," which garnered the Hugo and Nebula awards. Rather than show events as they occurred in that story, Chiang told the reader of events, as if the narrator were omniscient and predestination had wed the characters to their various fates. It reads like a sermon by a minister at his pulpit, illustrating the freedom people find in their beliefs, even when they aren't rewarded for them. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is not a sermon, despite its references to Allah, and its narrator is not omniscient, but Chiang uses the same mechanism--a story told rather than shown--to let you identify with Fuwaad.

It's a story easily read aloud, and probably better for it. We are the strangers in his land, and his beliefs and viewpoint are, normally, foreign to Western culture. Giving voice to Fuwaad and his tale mirrors his own thoughts and the Arabic proverb:

"Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity."

Ultimately, because of this sympathy with the character, you're left with a feeling of satisfaction. There are answers and an ending, but there are questions as well, and you're immediately hungry for other nights in the bazaars of Baghdad and Cairo, nights where you might be as attentive to the words of Fuwaad or Scheherazade as the faithful are the words of Allah.

Or readers are to the words of Ted Chiang.